If you drove up the road leading to the Watkins' ranch near Imperial
Beach, California in 1994, you would have been greeted by a remarkable
dog named Weela, a 65-pound, female American pit bull terrier.
Officially an American Staffordshire terrier, and sometimes known
as a Yankee terrier, the pit bull's unfortunate reputation comes
from the men who took advantage of the breed's rare courage by
training them to be bloody, fighting tools for unscrupulous gamblers.
Without such training, an American pit bull terrier is intelligent,
easily trained, strongly attached to its owner, and guardian of
its owner's property. The American Pit Bull is often called "the
most courageous animal ever born."
Weela was never taught to fight, nor was she harshly disciplined,
so her behavior contrasts sharply with the pit bull's stereotypic
reputation for viciousness. Weela was brought up surrounded by
an affectionate family who taught her basic obedience and good
manners. She was allowed to examine her world of animals and humans
without undue restraint. She lived as an ordinary loving and beloved
family pet, but her life was anything but ordinary. It was as
if Weela had her own destiny and reason for being from the start.
One of ten puppies abandoned and left to die in a back alley in
Imperial Beach, California, Weela's start in life was precarious.
A near tragedy was averted by a chance encounter. Good fortune
came to these puppies when Lori Watkins, an animal lover, happened
to go to town to do some errands the day after the puppies were
abandoned. Lori parked her car and started her errands, walking
several bocks, stopping at the drug store, bakery, and dry cleaners.
As she walked past an alley she heard some strange sounds. They
were not very loud, but they sounded like the wimpering of an
animal or animals in distress. After she finished her errands,
she walked back to the alley. She entered the alley and walked
slowly in the direction of the sound to investigate its source.
Lori was astonished to find a litter of ten puppies, apparently
abandoned by both the mother and the mother's owner. She later
found out that the puppies' mother was a very young American pit
bull terrier that had been bred too young. When the owner discovered
that the young mother, almost a puppy herself, was inadequate
for her job, the owner decided to get rid of the puppies.
Once Lorie discovered the source of the strange sounds, she hurriedly
carried her purchases back to her car and drove straight to the
alley where the puppies were huddled together crying for food
and water. She gathered them up in an old car blanket, put them
in a carton she had in the back seat, and drove them home to her
ranch not far from the city.
When Lori arrived home with her unusual cargo, the whole Watkins
family enthusiastically pitched in and planned how to help the
newest additions to their family. They fed them, watered them,
played with them, kept them warm and gave them the love they so
needed—the puppies had a family of human surrogate parents.
It was not long before the puppies started to flourish and grow.
From the very beginning, one of the pups, a female, took a shine
to the Watkins' young son. She would not let him out of her sight.
She slept with him and followed him everywhere he went. In truth,
this little puppy, whom they named Weela, adopted the young boy
by simply claiming him as hers.
As the puppies grew older and stronger, one by one Lori found
a good home for each of them—that is, all but one. Needless
to say, Weela stayed on to live with the Watkins family. Finding
these puppies in such a vulnerable state led to Lori's special
interest in the spay/neutering program of the Humane Society.
Weela grew up to be a very happy 65-pound adult dog. She loved
to run loose on the ranch, visiting with the horses, cows and
chickens. She was unafraid of all but one of the animals. The
only animal that baffled Weela was the goat. She was always terrified
of the goat.
The family seems pretty certain that the goat never charged her.
Perhaps she feared the goat because he always put his head down
in a menacing way or because he had such a funny voice. No one
knows. For whatever reason, Weela was always very careful to stay
out of the goat's way. Weela also had her favorite animals. Her
most favorite was a potbelly pig who seemed equally happy to see
Weela when she came dancing and sniffing around. They sometimes
seemed to have serious conversations about life and their lives
Weela also participated in all the activities of the human members
of her family. She loved to swim and when the family went fishing,
she was there. When the family went horseback riding up the nearby
trails, Weela followed along. And when the family relaxed, she
joined them on the couch, typical of most people's pets.
If Weela was such a typical pet, what made her different? In 1993,
Weela became the Ken-L-Ration Dog Hero of the Year, the 40th dog
so honored since the awards began in 1954. She earned this award
because of the extraordinary courage she exhibited during a California
flood. Weela did not just perform one act of heroism as so many
other winners had, nor was her heroism solely directed toward
her owners. Weela went on countless missions to rescue both strangers
and animals over a period of three months. During this time she
is credited with saving 30 people, 29 dogs, 13 horses, and one
cat, all of whom most likely would have died during the large-scale
winter flooding in southern California.
In January 1993, heavy rains caused a dam to break miles upstream
on the Tijuana River. Normally a narrow, three-foot-wide river,
the dam break caused wild raging waters to isolate both people
and animals for almost three months. When the dam first broke
through, Lori and Dan Watkins and Weela went to a neighbor's ranch
to try to rescue their friend's 12 dogs. Together, they worked
for six hours battling heavy rains, strong currents, and floating
debris before they were able to reach the ranch to rescue the
dogs. The Watkins were amazed at Weela's extraordinary ability
to recognize quicksand, dangerous drop-offs, and mud bogs. She
worked diligently and never let up. Both the tenaciousness and
strength of her bull dog ancestors were exhibited throughout the
day. Lori Watkins said, "She was constantly willing to put
herself in dangerous situations. She always took the lead except
to circle back if someone needed help." Weela's instinctive
judgments seemed to be accurate without exception. The Watkins
attributed a great deal of their success in rescuing the neighbor's
dogs to Weela's efforts.
During the next month, 17 dogs and one cat were found to be stranded
on an island. On several occasions, Weela swam to the island,
each time pulling 30 to 50 pounds of dog food that had been loaded
into a backpack harnessed to her back. This took enormous strength
as well as courage. Weela continued to provide these animals with
food until they were finally evacuated on Valentine's Day.
During the peak of the flood, thirteen horses became stranded
on a large manure pile where they had sought refuge from the raging
waters. The frightened animals had become completely surrounded
by flood waters. A rescue team used Weela to guide them through
the rapidly flowing waters until all of the horses were finally
brought to safe ground.
One day when Weela was returning from one of her food deliveries
to stranded animals, she came upon a group of 30 people who were
attempting to cross the flood waters. Weela became very excited.
She refused to let them cross where they were trying to do so.
She barked continuously and kept running back and forth, literally
herding them to another place where it was safe to do so. Unwittingly,
these people had been trying to cross the river at a point where
the waters ran particularly fast and where the water was deepest.
Weela knew that this was a dangerous spot, so she led them upstream
to shallower water where the group was finally able to cross to
the other side safely.
After several months, the Tijuana River finally became narrow
and calm again. Once the emergency was over, there was no longer
a need for a rescue dog, so Weela went back home to the ranch
full-time to enjoy life as before. However, her community heroism
was recognized. As the Ken-L-Ration's 40th award winner in their
annual search for the most heroic dog in the nation, Weela received
a certificate of merit, a silver-plated, engraved bowl, and a
year's supply of Kibbles'n Bits dog food. Surely, the people she
diverted from disaster and the animals she fed when the waters
were raging around them will not forget her. Weela's life seemed
to have found its purpose and destiny.
However, if you saw her today running around the ranch, you would
think she was just a delightful but ordinary pet.
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